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Preserving county's resources underlined

Paul Peirce
| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 1:29 a.m.

Westmoreland County must work to keep its "rural, open space character" while plotting future development, according to a proposed comprehensive plan.

Preservation of the county's charm was a theme running through the recently released 418-page report prepared by consultant Mullin & Lonergan Associates Inc., based on information gathered in a series of public meetings and surveys of county residents.

County commissioners have begun a second series of public meetings to gather comments on the wide-ranging document that is designed to guide development and anticipate long-range community needs. A meeting will be held 7 p.m. today at New Alexandria Community Building, and five more are planned at various locales through November.

"You know, I'm really excited for the county. I think the approach they've taken on this is really sound," said Alex Graziani, executive director of the Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County, a nonprofit group that works with local governments to address the challenges that come with economic growth and revitalization.

Graziani said he believes the plan lays the framework for future development, but it leaves the major decisions to "the real policy-makers" -- local municipal governments.

"There's no micro-managing in the plan. It focuses on the big picture for the county and creates the framework, while leaving the specific details to local municipal governments," he said.

Smart Growth has been a major proponent of the county adopting a comprehensive plan. Graziani said Westmoreland will be among the last counties in Pennsylvania to adopt a long-range development plan.

"Another good thing about it is we won't be the last one. We'll be 65th out of 67 counties," he said.

Residents can view the plan at the county's Web site, Copies also will be sent this week to the locations of future public meetings, each scheduled for 7 p.m. Meetings are slated for Oct. 20 at the Mt. Pleasant fire hall, Oct. 26 at the Allegheny Township municipal building, Nov. 4 at the Rostraver Township municipal building, and Nov. 9 at the Penn Township municipal building, said Lynn Showalter, of the county planning department.

A seventh meeting is planned in the Greensburg area at a date and location that will be announced. Showalter said residents can review the plan in the county planning department, at the courthouse in Greensburg.

In the document, Mullin & Lonergan reported that several trends emerged from the hundreds of telephone surveys, public meetings, interviews and focus group meetings conducted since the firm was hired by the county in 2002.

"There is a general overall public appreciation of the abundant beauty and natural resources in the county. Preservation of the rural, open space character of the county is important to almost everyone," the report said.

Many people also place a high value on the county's various recreational resources. A number of those surveyed also said "farming should be preserved as a way of life in the county," according to the report.

Mullin & Lonergan reported that some people fear the county is becoming overly developed with highway commercial uses and expressed concern about "a proliferation of big-box retailers." Some also said they felt the level of commercial development "was about right."

"There is a general concern about sprawl and traffic congestion. Many people feel that traffic volumes and traffic signals have increased significantly in the county," the report said.

In addition to outlining concerns, the report offers some suggestions.

In a more detailed transportation section, the report said, "Once installed, signals are rarely timed with nearby signals to facilitate the flow of traffic. The re-timing of traffic signals is an example of a relatively easy and inexpensive measure to ease congestion."

Another issue documented in the report deals with the number of municipal governments.

"Some people feel there are too many units of local government in the county. They called for consolidation and merger of municipal services in order to achieve efficiency," the report said.

Those surveyed also expressed concern about the county's inability to retain its younger, educated work force.

Showalter said the plan "does not get into zoning."

"Zoning is strictly a local decision, and that is mentioned extensively throughout the report," he said.

The plan is not binding, and it will not supersede any local plans or zoning ordinances, Showalter said. Still, officials believe it will help to coordinate planning throughout the county.

"This plan is to be used by the county as a resource guide to guide future development. It also will serve as a guide when procuring federal and state grants," he said.

In addition to transportation, the report also has extensive chapters on other matters including housing, the changing work force, commercial development and revitalizing cities and neighborhoods.

Graziani said another highlight is a section in the report aimed at implementing and upgrading it over time, "so it's just not placed on a shelf to gather dust."

"It says implementation will require effort and coordinating efforts among those involved," he said. "Overall, I think it's a pretty bold plan."

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